I'm adrift on my new couch, several weeks after dragging it into my apartment from a stranger’s dusty house across town. I’m encircled by remotes, controllers, instruction manuals. Strewn across the sofa like debris, they float like the wreckage of some entertainment catastrophe. My Street Fighter IV joystick, red and bone-white, clutches a pillow like a raft; a 360 controller blinks plaintively, until drowning. Fifteen feet away, my television beams light onto my skin, the high white moon over my living room sea.
I touch my lips, my temples. I have a headache. I feel empty. I’ve been playing games for the last six hours. For the last twenty five years. It’s the end of a year, of a decade. It’s the end of absolutely nothing.
We mark our lives by what has passed us by, yet we’re creatures of anticipation. Our contradiction is that we count how many birthdays we’ve had, yet we fixate on how many we may have left. Terrified of the magnitude of death, sickened by the stagnancy of life, we distract ourselves, perpetually smothering our consciousness with ready diversion. We claw out of the primordial soup of the everyday, toward the horizon of what’s next.
We’re hunters. As hunters, we know only desire. We seek, we obsess, we find infatuation, and then we move on. This is a world of novelties.
In a world of novelties, Love Does Not Exist.
In the 1950’s, James Olds and Peter Milner started digging deep into the heads of rats. They filled the animals' heads with wires, and studied how the creatures learned. The scientists shocked different areas of the rodents' brains, noting the results. As they continued their work at the McGill University in Canada, they stumbled across a spectacular finding: certain areas, when electro-shocked, would provide pleasure to the animals. The rats would abandon food, sex, and personal hygiene to receive these delicious stimuli. Years later, similar experiments would be performed on people. Humans, given the ability to press a button and receive pleasure, would wear the skin off their fingers.
Recent reevaluations of these experiments indicate it wasn't the orgasm that these animals were addicted to, but rather the anticipation of happiness. A study on Rhesus monkeys gave the primates a choice between gambling for their meals or an assured reward. Time and time again, the animals preferred risk over regulation. The monkeys would rather gamble; the unreliable result provided constant novelty.
We are all obsessed with novelty. It's written into our brains. What we describe as being in love is the preoccupation we feel for something new. The relationships we develop are built on a foundation of familiarity; we nest so that we have a place to return to someday. But our obsession with novelty never goes away. Indeed, our love of gaming is a life-long relationship with novelty itself, encouraged by gaming's reward systems. We’re pressing the buttons on our controllers to press the buttons in our brains.
Be honest. How many of you are still playing games from 2002? How many of you still really love your girlfriend? How many of you ready to admit that you’re liars?
Welcome to Heather Anne Campbell’s Year in Games.
In February, Street Fighter IV finally arrived in my apartment. I'd reviewed the game in January, but this was different. This was my copy. The things I unlocked wouldn't go away, the achievements I earned would be recorded for all to see. For six months or so, it was the only game I touched, the only game I felt. Street Fighter IV was an opiate. Every chance I got, I snuck into my apartment and had an affair, took a hit. It was an addiction, a compulsion; I lied to everyone about how much I was playing. Readers of mine shouldn't be surprised, but the degree to which I hid my dependence from my real-world friends was astounding.
"What did you do last night," asked a friend.
"Oh, I read a book for a while and then went to bed."
What is it about gaming -- the compulsive, strung-out bender sessions -- that makes it so humiliating? Could it be that I was pressing buttons to make scantily clad women and heaving, hormonal man-beasts pummel each other over and over again? Was it the number of hours that I spent playing that was so shameful? Starting at 8:00pm and then fighting till 4:00am? Is it the compulsion?
Or the content?
Street Fighter IV is one of my favorite games of last year, but like all games, it's becoming embarrassing. I'm an adult with a lifetime of real, painful experiences behind me, and the best the industry can manage is a set of action figures with intricate move-sets. I'm not knocking the pleasures of the game; I absolutely enjoy the psychic chess match of a good round of SFIV. But what am I looking at? What am I engaging? These bikini girls and green monsters, sumo wrestlers and broad cultural stereotypes. Is the announcer's screams of, "THE STRONG WIN AND THE WEAK LOSE! WHICH FIGHTER WILL PROVE THE OLD AXIOM TODAY!?" supplementing my intelligence? Is Street Fighter enriching my brain? Is it a protein, or is it perhaps, mercury? Is Street Fighter merely a a compulsion?
Perhaps I'm compelled to play because Street Fighter is a string of endless novelties. Each moment of a good fight is a branching tree of choices, determined by your opponent, style, timing, and your available strength. Being able to see your enemy's health and super meters is why I prefer fighting games to first-person shooters; you know what your enemy has left in him, and he knows exactly what you've got in your hand. This transparency encourages this additional levels of cat-and-mouse play, of risk and reward. I'd argue that two-dimensional fighters, like SFIV, narrow our focus into a single channel. The line of intention between you and your opponent is direct, unavoidable. You literally can not look away from each other. You're in blinders, your neck is harnessed, and the only thing in front of you is going to force you to gamble. Perfect. We're Rhesus monkeys, locked into a cycle of button-pushing, rewarding ourselves with perfect, fleeting glimpses of novelty.
Is the only path to novelty found in these fighting game moments? No. Structure can be novel. Difficulty can be novel. Punishment can be novelty.
Take, for example, Demon's Souls -- a game tied on my list for "Game of the Year, 2009." What makes Demon's Souls so unforgettable is jeopardy, loss, and patience. Every time we take a chance in Demon's Souls, we're being asked to risk it all. Every fight in Demon's Souls is an all-in bet. This is what makes the game powerful, and what makes it addictive. Even the weakest foes have the ability to take everything from us: our work, our time, our souls.
Of course, there's plenty of other extraordinary, deliberate choices in Demon's Souls that make the game more than an exercise in masochism.
As I wrote in my Play Magazine review, "Amidst this stoicism and difficulty is a grand set of interesting features and novel ideas. Firstly, the game takes place online, always. Demon's Souls is not an MMO, but the shadows of fellow adventurers can be glimpsed running along the same corridors, battling enemies and getting slain. You can leave messages for them on the ground, and they have done so for you; a blind cliff might carry a glowing warning about the fall, a well-hidden merchant might be hinted at with a message about a Good Guy lurking nearby. When you're about to encounter a trap, you'll know. The question, of course, is where the trap is, exactly.
If you haven't given Demon's Souls a chance, I beg you to. It's a fantastic game, worthy of the praise (and controversy) it has generated. Jordan Morris, a journalist friend of mine who works at Fuel TV, recently asked me what my favorite game was this year.
Before I could answer, he popped his cheeks, and said, "Oh, right. It's Street Fighter IV."
I replied, "Actually, it might be Demon's Souls."
He hadn't played it. So, I gushed about the game for a few minutes. Finally, he recommended his current addiction, Borderlands. I picked up a copy.
Jordan, I have to tell you: they're not comparable. Borderlands is fun for a while, but the novelty wears thin. There are certainly a lot of guns to chose from, but each fight goes pretty much the same way. The look of the game isn't enough to keep me interested, and the characters all feel like people I met in Fallout 3. The exact opposite of novelty.
When I was a child, there was a tree across the street with the face of a crocodile. Or at least, that's what I saw when I looked out my window. Perhaps most people would look at that tree and see nothing. We see what we want to. As human beings, we read patterns into everything: we see causality where there is only coincidence; we see art where there is accident. I read novelty into gaming, call it the motivation for our addiction, because I seek novelty myself. Because my heart has been broken.
In the wake of a broken heart, we look for something new, something novel, in ourselves and in our environment. Girls get new haircuts. Boys reconnect with their bros. But our pain is a cloak we can't cast off. Grief, after all, is a process.
You can't ignore how you feel. Whether you're high or despondent, whether you're in love or don't believe in it, your whole being is affected. Playing a video game when you're in a crowded room is very different than playing one alone. Playing a game with a broken heart is different than playing one after you've just won a basketball game.
So, unless we're honest with you, honest as journalists, our words are meaningless. They have no context. If we don't tell you about ourselves, we're publishing coded half-truths. That's why people keep a journal -- it's a place to be honest. Journals are our place for journalism, a zone of absolute truth. And that's what journalism should be: unmitigated honesty.
For example, what good is a review of the Legend of Zelda if you don't know the person who's writing it? No matter how much we attempt to be objective, subjectivity is the human condition. When you play The Legend of Zelda, what do you see? A straightforward, bare-bones reading of the game would outline the story of an adventurer who collects weapons and saves a princess.
But what does Zelda mean to the melancholic? To the heartbroken, it might be the story of a desperate rebound.
Perhaps the story of the Legend of Zelda is the story of a man who has just been through a terrible breakup. His heart was so broken that it's been shattered all over the world. Link collects heart containers because he's literally repairing his broken heart, while looking for a replacement girlfriend in the Princess Zelda. After all, the Princess is a blank slate. Link doesn't know her. He's projecting. He's looking for a new bond.
It's a current hypothesis that the hormone oxytocin is responsible for our feelings of empathy. Oxytocin is released during pregnancy to encourage bonding between a mother and child, and also strengthens trust between pairs. Mothers with higher levels of the neurotransmitter demonstrate a greater attachment to their children. Like the hormone vassopressin, which is roughly the male equivalent, these hormones may be the cellular foundation of what we describe as love.
Oxytocin and vasopressin are released during our most intimate moments with a partner. That's the warm glow you feel when you're done. It's not a chemical that encourages novelty; it's a hormone that supports monogamy.
My two favorite games from 2009 are Street Fighter IV and Demon's Souls. If you believe in love, you might not need, or respect. or be addicted to these games. You might want something like Modern Warfare 2, or inFamous.
Now, very recently a study by The University of Hafia also linked oxytocin to the human feeling of envy. Oxytocin isn't just a chemical of love; it's at the base of our feelings of jealousy and pride. "We assume that the hormone is an overall trigger for social sentiments: when the person's association is positive, oxytocin bolsters pro-social behaviors; when the association is negative, the hormone increases negative sentiments," declared Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a doctor in the department of Psychology at Hafia.
When you kick someone's ass in a game of Modern Warfare 2, do you find yourself gloating? Do you still believe in love? If so, I don't envy you.
As it is, the crocodile tree was cut down a few years ago. Who knows if it ever existed?
I'd like to introduce you to Cannabalt. Cannabalt is the iPhone game on my list, and it's a stellar little trinket. I didn't review Cannabalt formally, so here's the gist of the game:
You're a suit-wearing, unnamed protagonist. He begins the game by beginning to run. He runs automatically. We find out very soon why he's running: in the deep background of the world, there are giant beings destroying the earth. The player taps the screen to jump. And we must jump, because we must run. What is he running from? What is he running to? It doesn't matter. We know from the color palate, the backdrop, the perfect thump-thump-thumping of the soundtrack that getting there is really important.
But it's never the same journey twice. The obstacles in front of our tiny hero are randomized. The man (or woman, I suppose) runs from building to building, leaping over boxes, crashing through windows. Things fall from the sky; he jumps over them. Some buildings collapse beneath his feet; he runs to the edge before leaping to the next.
The longer he lives, the faster he goes -- unless the player modulates his speed by allowing him to careen into debris. Each time you play, the game is different. The only thing that's certain about Cannabalt is that our hero eventually dies.
We make a mistake. We have to. Like Tetris, it will eventually be our fault. The little suit falls off a building, leaps too low to make the next ledge, smashes into a robot/satellite/whatever and bursts into dust. And we start again; a new, novel game.
The best evidence I have for Cannabalt's quality is its addictiveness. I introduced the game to a room full of non-gaming friends, most of whom had iPhones. (I had been playing the game online on its flash website, since I don't have an iPhone.) One friend downloaded it, and began to play. Soon, another bought a copy and started running.
Eventually, everyone in the room was staring down at their screen, trying to beat one another's longest run. A total of ten people. Those who didn't have the Apple handset opened their laptops and started Cannabalting toward the end of the world.
Cannabalt isn't revolutionary, but it is perfect. It's complete. There's no facet of the game that stands out as unnecessary, there's no element that doesn't compliment the whole. The game is great, even though it's as simple as tapping your finger. Games don't have to be lunacy machines. They can be as easy as running, as joyful as jumping, as challenging as as besting the number at the top of the screen.
Cannabalt is an adult's game. It embarrasses no one.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves feels a bit like the opposite of Cannabalt. There's a lot in Uncharted 2 that's downright ridiculous. Why can Nathan Drake take three hundred bullets to the chest and not fall down dead? If human beings are capable of such stamina, why does he have to escort and protect a journalist who has only been shot once? Why can ammo be found in areas that have not seen human beings in thousands of years? Who is lighting the candles along the walls of these abandoned tombs? Why don't any of these grunts have radios? The answer "because it's a video-game" is not a suitable response. We have to stop answering our doubts with tautologies.
Since the game is stitched into an unravelling fabric of video-game logic, it demands not just suspension of disbelief, but also a familiarity with gaming as it has been before. The perquisite for Uncharted 2 is not Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, but rather video-gaming on the whole.
To put it another way, Cannabalt could be your first video-game. You understand the game in its entirety if you've never seen a video-game in your life. This doesn't mean it's casual; instead, like Tetris, it's just a fully-formed language. In order to enjoy Uncharted (or Demon's Souls, or SFIV, if I'm being fair), you must already speak game.
The reason this stands out so much in Uncharted 2 is due to the level of polish the rest of the game exhibits. The motion-captured cut-scenes are actually well-acted, the dialogue is not hokey, nor is the story really that terrible. I enjoyed Uncharted 2. But I wish it had made us proud of our hobby, had shucked off the silly and disposable "rules" of video-games, and had matured into something really new. Something novel. It's not so much innovative as it is a great showcase for all of the novelties of its lineage. As a package, Uncharted succeeds. As a precursor, it says very little.
Do people who watch movies need to watch other movies to understand the movies they're watching? Maybe. But as a general rule, the vocabulary of film -- which is to say, the edit -- is invisible. It's immediately understandable to an audience. The transparency of a great edit means that it can appear in movies made for toddlers.
But the language of video-games has to be introduced to people. Crates filled with health, inventory menus, save points -- all of these things can appear in a single game at the same time, with no thought spared for the player. What is the motivation for these holdovers? Resident Evil 5 is the best-selling Resident Evil game in the series, but it's not because it hides more ammo in more barrels. It's because of the controversy surrounding the title, as well as the combined install base of the PS3 and 360. Sadly, the next Resident Evil game probably won't take a step away from the series' pre-established game vocabulary, to pursue something less inhibited. Resident Evil 6 will make as little sense as the fifth installment in the franchise. It will rely on the lunatic language of games, and the specific slang of Resident Evils past, as opposed to the serenity of common sense.
Flower, on the other hand, makes all the sense it needs to. It's one of my favorite games of 2009, not because I'm looking to start arguments, but because it's unique, it's cathartic, and it's an independent title with the polish of a full-blown release. It's on my list because games don't all have to all be colored in browns, greys, dark browns, and slightly darker greys; I appreciate a little lavender here and there. It's an exceptional game because it evokes an emotion, plays without pandering, and is fully and completely realized.
We have this immense opportunity sitting under our television sets. The PS3, the 360, and the Wii do not have to keep churning out play-alikes. These machines don't have to render fighting, or driving, or flying simulators. Indeed, there is no console/content agreement that binds these systems to the existing human experience. Flower is a game that does not represent something we already do, and neither is it a puzzle system. We're playing a breeze. The protagonist of Flower not bipedal; it doesn't jump, it has no gauges nor power-ups, nor features. And that's what makes Flower a game worth celebrating. It's something new. And games should be like these fever dreams. They should be controlled hallucinations. We have our Holodecks; why do we keep loading the same program into them over and over again?
Now, I can promise you that I'll be playing Street Fighter IV (or Super Street Fighter IV) in a year. Probably even two years. But will I still be playing in five years? In ten? Sure, I pick up a game of Street Fighter III once in a while, when I'm at an arcade or a bowling alley and there's someone on the machine. Want to see what I've still got in me, how much the pace and energy of IV has affected my game. Street Fighter III was released more than a decade ago, and it's had a lasting effect on me as a player.
But what about these other games? Will I really be playing Cannabalt in a year? No. I won't be. And the same with Demon's Souls. I think they're fantastic games, but they have no longevity because, let's face it, they won't be novel anymore. Very few of us will be playing the games we have on our shelves now when the clock strikes 2020.
It's been a great ten years for games. In the last decade, games have gone from the flat facades of the PS1 to the real, lived-in environments of the PS3 and 360, saturated with all these touching details. We've given up the one dimensional sets of early film, and moved into actual locations. Games used to be the lies that our consoles told us -- the lies we allowed ourselves to believe. We gave in to their miserable deceptions. Now, sometimes, we have no choice to but to accept what our consoles are telling us. We can get involved in these worlds, unaware of where one pixel attaches to another, or where the seams link two polygons.
But despite the authority of these environments, gaming still doesn't provoke the attachment of film or literature. I can tell you what some of my favorite games from the last ten years are, but I'd be lying to you if I said that I was still playing Shadow of the Collossus, Portal, Katamari Damacy, God Hand, Silent Hill 2, Mirror's Edge, Cave Story, or Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64. These are monumental games to me, but all of them sit unplayed on a shelf behind my desk. By contrast, I still watch Blade Runner every few months. I still re-read my favorite articles and books, to reap new rewards from their pages.
Right now, film and literature remain the kings of content. Entrenched and enthroned, these old forms of entertainment remain seated at the head of a great hall, admired by our most enlightened selves. But the people we wish to be aren't the people we've become. Society isn't moving towards longer and more deliberate diversions. Opera has given way to the pop song. Conversation is now limited to Twitter's 140 characters.
Gaming gets this. Gets us. Gaming, games press, PR, the entire industry is only concerned with the lightning pace of novelty. Games satisfy our primal selves. We don't have wires sunk into our novelty centers, but we do have the buttons beneath our fingers. When we press those buttons, we press our buttons. Games are masturbation. And in that way, gaming is more honest with us. By conspiring with our basest needs to gamble, to seek novelty, gaming is getting deep into our instincts, and satisfying our most selfish needs. But we can't love a game, because the truth is we can't love anything. Because love does not exist. We can choose favorites, but in the end, we'll find something else, something new.
How many of you are still playing Portal? How many of you still love your girlfriends? And now how many of you are ready to admit to yourselves, in a whisper, that you're liars?
-Heather Anne Campbell